The Americana singer/songwriter has a new album on Bloodshot Records, and now he's driving it around the country in a car by himself.
The cover of Americana artist Cory Branan’s The No-Hit Wonder depicts him boots up and asleep, napping through his potential big break, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Branan’s schedule for the rest of the year is for relentless touring. The holes currently in his schedule he’s trying to fill, and at one point he’ll drive to catch a plane to jump on a bus with The Gaslight Anthem and Against Me to join their tour (which plays The Civic without him October 10). He tries to get home every three weeks or so, but “sometimes tours pile up on top of each other,” Branan says. On The No-Hit Wonder, Branan is joined by guests including Jason Isbell, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Caitlin Rose among others, but when he tours, he tours as a solo act. When plays The Beatnik tonight, he’ll be alone.
“It’s awesome,” Branan says by phone. “You don’t have to vote on where to eat lunch. I’ve been renting [cars] the past few years trying not to put extra miles on my own car, and with these little rentals that burn the gas okay, you can get off the highway. I’ve really seen the country in the past 15 years. All the weird, twisted backroads of America. It’s pretty great.”
It helps that he travels with his guitar, so he doesn’t need much in the way of a soundcheck and can take his time. If he gets to the venue an hour before doors open, he’s good.
Branan’s been traveling this way long enough to feel technological changes. He used to need a road atlas, and phone calls were the only way to touch base with loved ones. Now apps handle maps, and FaceTime on his iPhone allows him to stay in touch with his wife and two kids. Other than that, Branan finds being alone easy. “I’m not a naturally social person,” he says. “I’m at the clubs for three or four hours each night, so I get a heavy dose of social on the road.” The drive the next day gives him time to decompress.
The clarity that comes with time to think is clear in Branan’s songwriting. You know what songs titled “You Make Me,” “Daddy Was a Skywriter” and “Missing You Fierce” are about just from titles, and Branan delivers on their promise. More than that though, he brings them to life, dotting songs with lines and details that give them a reality that his lived-in voice further sells. Like Nick Lowe—who he brings to mind—Branan’s songs on the album share the sort of drive that classic country and rockabilly have, and the lyrics are effortlessly plainspoken.
These days Nashville’s home, but he’s chased the dream to a number of cities. He moved to Nashville to be near his ailing father, but it’s home now. Two kids aged two and a half and seven months have been hard on his writing schedule—“Not that I ever had much of one,” he says—but you couldn’t tell from The No-Hit Wonder.
His son likes to hear dad play guitar. “Give him a ukelele and he’ll bang on that and he’ll sit there and listen to me play,” he says. “Then he’ll want to climb up and beat the crap out of my nice, new guitar.” Now he’s trying to write on the road. Between wear and tear from the night before and the concentration required by driving, he’s never been good at it, but he’s going to see what he can do. Recently, he sat up and turned something he’d started into a track for Nashville, the television show.
“I had a line for that kind of song and stayed up for a few hours and banged that one out after they went to bed,” Branan says.
He can write on demand, but for the most part songs come largely unbidden, sparked by word or phrase that hits him right at the right time. The mix of hard and soft sounds help him build the song from there, and the cadence of his speaking voice dictates the melody. As he describes it, Branan’s songwriting is a combination of poetics and carpentry.
“My melodies are not very acrobatic,” he says. “I’m not like Burt Bacharach. Usually I’m very linear and conversation with my melodies.” Thinking about form and what happens in the verses and choruses helps him discover the story he’s trying to tell. “I love writing bridges. I love writing things that open the song back up.”
At some point, Branan will work a song through to the end, mumbling through the parts he’s unsure of, largely to find out what the song is about. That knowledge helps him know how to fill in the blanks and keeps the song from growing out of control. “I don’t like writing long Blonde on Blonde songs,” he says. “I’ve done it, but I never record any of those type things. I like working in miniature.”